December 20, 2010

JAXA Reaches For The Sky Despite Its Small Budget

Despite its relatively small budget, Japan's space program has courageously reached for the heavens, pioneering solar-powered galactic travel, exploring a distant asteroid and planning a robot base on the Moon.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has completed several world firsts this past year, including the safe return of a deep-space probe that picked up asteroid dust from an oblong space rock on an epic seven-year mission.

The Hayabusa (Falcon in English) ended its three-billion-mile odyssey when it burnt up on reentry over the Australian outback. The craft had already safely parachuted a disk-shaped container carrying the particles to Earth before burning up.

JAXA hopes the extra-terrestrial grains from asteroid Itokawa will help reveal the secrets from the dawn of the universe some 4.6 billion years ago.

The Hayabusa mission, which cost less than 200 million US dollars (20 billion yen), has raised interest in the space program, and in science and technology, project leader Junichiro Kawaguchi told AFP.

"Space development doesn't foster industries directly but it can nurture people who will contribute to industries in the future," he said. "It brought about an immensely bigger educational effect."

Earlier this year JAXA also stunned the world when it sent a "space yacht" floating through the black void without leaving a trace of a carbon footprint.

The kite-shaped Ikaros -- short for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun -- is propelled by Sun particles bouncing off its fold-out wings, which are thinner than a human hair.

The space agency has not been without setbacks, however. Last week, its Akatsuki (Dawn) probe narrowly missed its entry point to the orbit of Venus, where it was due to observe the toxic atmosphere and its blistering volcanic surface for two years.

Ground control, however, took the bad news with a positive outlook, vowing it will try again when the probe and Venus have their next rendezvous in six years. If the probe makes it, it will get a close-up glimpse of what is often called our sister planet.

Venus is similar in size to Earth, and also in age, but the second planet from the Sun is covered in clouds of sulphuric acid and is cooking at a sultry 860 degrees Fahrenheit.

JAXA's missions are far more ambitious than its budget would suggest. The agency has no manned missions and has operated on only 4 billion dollars this fiscal year, less than one-tenth of NASA's budget, and less than half the annual budget of Europe's space program.

JAXA is currently planning a follow-up probe to its Hayabusa in 2014, as it struggles to maintain its budgets. The 2014 probe is planned to explore an asteroid named 1999JU3. JAXA says it hopes the probe would discover "organic and hydrated materials" on the asteroid, and also hopes to find whether "there is any relation to life on Earth."

Yoshiaki Takagi, Japan's science and technology minister, vowed last month that "we will strive to secure the budget so that we can offer maximum support" for the Hayabusa-2 project.

His ministry has requested a 100-fold boost in funding for the Hayabusa-2 project for next year.

In the future, JAXA may take on an even more ambitious challenge.

An expert panel advising the minister for space development called for sending a wheeled robot to the Moon within five years -- having first considered a two-legged humanoid, which was rejected because of the Moon's rough surface.

It foresees building the first lunar base by 2020, which could be staffed by advanced robots, as a key stepping stone for Japan's space exploration, a field where competition is heating up throughout Asia.

"It is extremely important to probe the Moon... as we now see the dawn of 'the Age of Great Voyages' in the solar system," said the panel, noting that "China, India and other countries are aiming to probe the Moon."

The government's Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy believes a successful space program does much to lift Japan's profile on Earth.

"Our country's space technology, its achievements and human resources are truly diplomatic resources that would boost our influence and position in the international community," it said in a policy report.

"We will promote them as a source of our soft power," it added.


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